Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges: A Story of Resilience Against Racism in Classical Music
The era of Classical Music is one of the most iconic eras of music, extending from the death of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 to Ludwig van Beethoven’s change in style in the early 1830’s. Some of the most well known composers of the Classical period include Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert. One name, however, was largely lost in history, and his extravagant story of resilience was lost with it.
Joseph Bologne, known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born in Guadeloupe, which was, at the time, a French colony. His father was a wealthy white man, and his mother was a Black woman named Nanon, his father’s slave. Living in France for most of his life, Saint-Georges was a talented violinist that joined a new symphony orchestra in France at the age of 24. After two years, he became the concertmaster (the lead violinist that tunes the orchestra and plays most solos). This is also when he began composing.
Bologne would go on to become a well-received composer of the Classical Era. He published a number of violin concertos (a solo piece with accompaniment by a full orchestra), as well as sonatas (a solo piece), symphonies (a full orchestra piece), and stage works. The color of his skin, however, restrained him from the same reception and fame as fully white composers, such as Mozart and Haydn.
The French composer’s mixed race put him in the face of racism throughout his entire life, even after equal rights were declared to all French people during the French Revolution. Most famously, he submitted his name for the music director position at the Paris Opera, which had been a life-long dream of Bologne’s. However, three women began a petition against it, claiming that they were unwilling to work for a man of mixed race. When the petition reached the queen of France, Bologne withdrew his application.
Today, few people know of Bologne’s story, and his accomplishments are minimized by history. Many refer to him as “The Black Mozart,” but his compositions are unique and incomparable to any other artist’s, and the label greatly reduces the individuality of his work. Bologne’s accomplishments as a Black musician were revolutionary at the time, and his success paved the way for other Black composers in classical and modern music. He is remembered as the first ever European musician of full or partial African descent to receive widespread acclaim. The music world still has far to go in order to fully eliminate the erasure of Black history, as well as that of other minorities. The first step is to educate ourselves and others on figures of musical history that were forgotten by the world because of their race.
https://www.laopera.org/about-us/artists-2/creative-team/joseph-bologne/ https://www.berlinerfestspiele.de/en/berliner-festspiele/programm/bfs-kuenstler/bfs_kuenstler_de tail_301335.html